In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries identified “post-truth” as the word of the year. On the heels of one of the most highly debated elections in our nation’s history, the term was a nod to the political climate at the time. Fast-forward to 2018 and post-truth, a well-groomed version of Donald Trump’s “fake news” tagline is, yes, still a thing.

As PR professionals, we now find ourselves navigating a media landscape where much of our audience – consumers, in particular – disagrees on what is fact and fiction. In the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, a staggering 63% of respondents said they can’t delineate good journalism from rumors.

Quite honestly, none of this is new. Fake news was behind bogus claims about Napoleon’s height, or that Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity after being clocked on the head by an apple.

From a professional PR vantage point, Trump’s approach to messaging is nothing short of horrific. While we aim to promote the business interests of our clients, our work with media depends heavily on factual accuracy. This is PR 101. Our efforts are undermined by attacks on the media’s validity.

While it may be easy to criticize Trump’s shortcomings, let’s give the devil his due. His brash, direct, unrefined and seemingly non-calculated approach resonated with his audience and aided in propelling his campaign to presidential heights. The odds were against him – yet his PR approach worked.

On this purely tactical basis, Trump did what the PR industry has at times, unfortunately, failed to do. Trump has consistently gone against the grain, doing away with what is considered “traditional” or “right” PR. During the campaign, for example, he broke through the messaging clutter of his political rivals, most of whom stuck to bland platitudes that had little credibility among many voters.

Arguably, there is something that PR professionals can learn from Donald Trump’s “spin.” But to draw useful lessons requires us to untangle effective, ethical messaging practices from the PR wreckage that he has created by breaking or bending cardinal PR rules in a number of his actions, including:

  • Reveling in the phrase “all publicity is good publicity.”
  • Touting “no one cares about the truth.”
  • Strategy? Who needs strategy?
  • “Telling it like it is” even when it isn’t.

The underpinnings of PR professionals’ approach to client counsel and media relations still require tact and finesse on a foundation of factual accuracy. However, Trump’s success suggests that we must re-evaluate PR standards in a digitally driven, content-overladen world. The essential question is this: As PR professionals, are we pushing boundaries and provoking thought while still maintaining trust among companies, individuals and the media?

As experts, we must be at the forefront of understanding the difference between real and fake news, what strategies to employ and the tactical steps we need to take to support our clients. If there is anything Trump has shown us, it’s that rules can certainly be broken. The trick is to break rules while sticking to our core code of ethics and business practices with our clients’ needs in consideration.

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